Christian Teachings about Life after Death: A Pastor Ruminates

stream 2I have been asked to speak about “Christian teachings about the after-life.” This is final installment in a series of helpful presentations on preparing for death. There have been presentations on wills and bequests, end of life care, grieving and the like. And once again Max (Stackhouse) has asked me to bat clean-up and talk about theology.

One of my friends in the church said to me last week, “Oh, your talk is theology, so it won’t be practical.” She was kidding, I think, but let me respond to her remark by suggesting that a theology about death and what comes after it may be the most practical aspect of all for the Christian preparing for death. It is a shame how theology has come to have a bad name, even in the church.

Because theology is not some specialty for professional theologians, but simply the way we talk about God. That is what theology means, the logos of the theos, the word about God. And everybody has a theology, at least implicitly, so the more we can make it examined and explicit the more chance we will get it better rather than worse.

So right off the bat let me suggest a better title for what I hope to do here. I much prefer the phrase “life after death” to the term “afterlife,” because I think the former rightly expresses the Christian belief in the reality of death, while the latter can obscure the boundary between death and whatever comes after it.

I want to explore with you four ideas or concepts: 1. The reality of death, 2. Immortality of the soul, 3. Resurrection of the body, and 4. Eternal Life. Finally, I want to summarize the features of an adequate Christian theology of life after death, and the promises of the Gospel that are our hope in the face of death.

1.The Reality of Death

The first concept to ponder is the reality of death.  Some of the earliest thinking about death in the Bible is about its not only ending one’s natural life, but also severing our relationship with God. For Israel human purpose was to praise God, and death put an end to it. This relational view was visualized in spatial terms, so that places like Sheol and “the Pit” were places far from God.

Christianity inherited this relational view of life with God, and sees death as its cessation and the opposite of the fullness of life that God intends for us. So unlike some other religions that view death as an illusion or an escape, for Christians, death is real, as are the sense of loss and grief that accompany death, which are also real and nothing to ashamed of or denied. I have said at countless funerals: “There is nothing unchristian about grief; Jesus himself cried at the grave of his friend Lazarus.”

Moreover, Jesus himself died, and his own death provides a template for thinking about this. The creeds say quite simply, “He died and was buried.”

So accepting the reality of death is an important first step in thinking about it properly as Christians. In my nearly forty years of ministry I sometimes counseled people who wanted to deny or blunt this reality. People often asked for much-loved sentimental poems to be read at the funeral. I would gently suggest something more appropriate, but I was pastorally sensitive enough to allow their selection to be read if they insisted, knowing that I would get up and say something quite contradictory in my homily.

Let me give you some examples of poems that deny or minimize the reality of death, and I apologize in advance if these are your favorites.

Here’s a line from A. L. Frinks’ the Rose Beyond the Wall:

“Shall claim of death cause us to grieve
And make our courage faint and fall?
Nay! Let us faith and hope receive–
The rose still grows beyond the wall,”

Another and even better known poem about death is James Whitcomb Riley’s Consolatio:

“I cannot say, and will not say
that he is dead. He is just away.
With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand,
he has wandered into an unknown land.”

“We do not sorrow as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13), but we do sorrow. So while as Christians we have much more to say than death is real, it is where we must start, reminding ourselves that Jesus, in his human nature, really did die, as all human beings do.

To make this point I once began an Easter sermon years ago by saying that “On Good Friday Jesus was as dead as a doornail.” I wasn’t trying to be shocking, but I was surprised by how many people took offense to this statement.

I know something of death. Both my parents died too young, I have worked in a funeral home, been an EMT, and a minister for nearly four decades. I have been present at many deaths, and each time I have been struck by how clear the line is between the living and the dead. And yet everything I know about death is on this side of it, as it is for us all. But  one thing I do know about death: it is real.

So if the first theme is the reality of death, how shall we properly think and talk about what comes after?

2. Immortality of the Soul.

One very prevalent idea of life after death is immortality of the soul. I would like to explore this popular idea with you, and show you why it is an inadequate view for Christians, admitting that in my early years it was my own view.

Let me share something about that with you. My own theology of death and what comes after it was shaped, at least in part, by my childhood bedtime prayer, a somewhat terrifying one from the New England Primer:

“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but in my child’s imagination I had adopted a somewhat Platonic dualism about the human person, separating body and soul into the perishable and imperishable.

My own children, at the insistence of my wife, had a more sanitized version of that prayer that didn’t get them pondering sudden death in the nighttime. Whether they are better off for this is open for discussion. But in my own early thought-processes I figured that if such a sad event as my childhood death did take place, it would only be my physical body, and this invisible spiritual thing “the soul” would go swiftly to God. This is the essence of the idea of immortality of the soul.

I was taken aback to be told that this view, while widely held, was not particularly Christian. I learned in seminary that the Hebrew word translated as “soul,” nephesh, more rightly means “self,” in other words, the whole person.  Harrell Beck, my wonderful Old Testament professor, liked to say that your fingernails are as much a part of your soul as any other part, which is to say human selves are embodied. Or as I like to think of it: we don’t have a body so much as we are a body.

It is from the Greeks, and especially from Plato, that we get the notion of a disembodied soul housed in a physical body, an idea that still clings to many Christian ideas about an afterlife.

These ideas were ambient in the ancient Near East and in the Hellenistic world in which the New Testament was written, and they lived in uneasy tension with the more holistic Hebraic views of personhood. We even get a whiff of Greek dualism in the New Testament, such as in First Corinthians, one of the undisputed letters of Paul. He writes in 1 Corinthians 5:1:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

So if the disembodied immortal soul flying away from the perishable body is not the Christian theology of life after death, how are we to think about it?

3. The Resurrection of the Dead

Resurrection of the dead is the cardinal Christian idea of life after death. It is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus, which pervades all New Testament thinking. In Jesus’ resurrection God has vindicated the humiliated and crucified Jesus, and begun the eschatological process of the salvation of humanity and the world, a process to be completed at the end of history, when Christ comes in glory to judge the living and the dead.

This distinguishes Christian theology from other views that see life after death as something intrinsic to the human person. Resurrection of the dead, on the other hand, is about the discontinuity between life and life after death. The rupture of death is overcome only from God’s side by God’s action. So resurrection of the dead is not resuscitation, but a new creation analogous to the first creation. It is not resurrection of the flesh, but resurrection of the body, a new kind of life that we can only guess at. When Paul  speculated on what kind of body we would have in the new life he employed the oxymoron “spiritual body” to refer to what form are we raised.

There are clues to this mystery in the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. After Jesus is raised he appears to the disciples in bodily form; he is the same, but also transfigured in some way. The accounts contain mysteries: sometimes he is recognized, but other times he is not, as in the road to Emmaus story, when the disciples only know him when he breaks bread. Yet he still bears the marks of the Roman nails in his hands and feet.

However we want to take these narratives they point to the consistent conclusion that the new life postmortem is embodied life.  The Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead is a theological interpretation based on the death and raising of Jesus. The expectation of a resurrected body also emphasizes the continuity of personality and the integrity of personhood. I said that Christian views stress discontinuity between life and life after death, but here we see continuity of personality after death. So we have both discontinuity and continuity as the person really dies, but in the new life is the same person as before death, although changed. So it is not some spiritual part of you that lives the new kind of life; it is you, embodied and recognizable to God as you. This contrasts to various views of a disembodied postmortem existence, such as immortality of the soul and reincarnation.

It is important to remind ourselves that, while we are not surprised by the claim of Jesus’ resurrection and have difficulty with the idea of a general resurrection, for the people at the time of Jesus death it was just the opposite. A general resurrection vindicating Israel involving a Davidic messiah or the Son of Man was part of the general religious imagination. The resurrection of an individual however was not, which is why the raising of Jesus was understood as the beginning of the eschaton, the final reckoning, restoration and vindication of God and his faithful. We hear this in the language of Jesus being the first-fruits and the forerunner.

The raising of Jesus then is the primary theological template by which all things are measured, including death and life after death. Consistently in the New Testament death is viewed through the lens of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In 75 places in the New Testament the principle Greek adjective that means “dead,” nekros, is the object of either egeiro “to awaken” or anastasis, “to raise.

This raising from the dead makes Christianity an Easter faith, and so the Christian sees death in Easter light. Because Jesus is raised we too will be raised with him. This is a far different idea than immortality of the soul. Let us take a few moments to contrast them.

The great scholar Oscar Cullmann wrote an important book in 1956 called Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead in which he starkly contrasted these two views. Some of his critics have complained that he contrasted them too sharply. They may be right, but the book remains an important one for understanding the predominant Christian views.

Cullmann’s thesis is, and I quote, “The widely accepted idea of ‘The immortality of the soul’ is one of the greatest misunderstandings of Christianity. The concept of death and resurrection is anchored in the Christ-event, and hence is incompatible with the Greek belief in immortality.”

Cullmann deftly illustrates his point by looking at the death of Socrates in contrast to the death of Jesus. He writes:

The death of Socrates (as described by Plato) is a beautiful death. Nothing is seen here of death’s terror. Socrates cannot fear death, since indeed it sets us free from the body. Whoever fears death proves that he loves the world of the body, that he is thoroughly entangled in the world of sense. Death is the soul’s great friend. So he teaches; and so, in wonderful harmony with his teaching, he dies — this man who embodied the Greek world in its noblest form.

Cullmann then turns to the death of Jesus:

In Gethsemane He knows that death stands before Him, just as Socrates expected death on his last day. The Synoptic Evangelists furnish us, by and large, with a unanimous report. Jesus begins ‘to tremble and be distressed’, writes Mark (14:33). ‘My soul is troubled, even to death.’ . . .

In Luke 12:50 it is completely impossible to explain away the ‘distress’ in the face of death, and also in view of the fact that Jesus is abandoned by God on the Cross [Mark 15:34], it is not possible to explain the Gethsemane scene except through this distress at the prospect of being abandoned by God, an abandonment which will be the work of Death, God’s great enemy.)Jesus is afraid, though not as a coward would be of the men who will kill Him, still less of the pain and grief which precede death. He is afraid in the face of death itself. Death for Him is not something divine : it is something dreadful. . . .

Here (in Jesus’ death) is nothing of the composure of Socrates, who met death peacefully as a friend. To be sure, Jesus already knows the task which has been given Him: to suffer death; and He has already spoken the words: ‘I have a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how distressed (or afraid) I am until it is accomplished’ (Luke 19:50). Now, when God’s enemy stands before Him, He cries to God, whose omnipotence He knows: ‘All things are possible with thee; let this cup pass from me’ (Mark 14:36). And when He concludes, ‘Yet not as I will, but as thou wilt’, this does not mean that at the last He, like Socrates, regards death as the friend, the liberator. No, He means only this: If this greatest of all terrors, death, must befall Me according to Thy will, then I submit to this horror. Jesus knows that in itself, because death is the enemy of God, to die means to be utterly forsaken. Therefore He cries to God; in face of this enemy of God He does not want to be alone. He wants to remain as closely tied to God as He has been throughout His whole earthly life. For whoever is in the hands of death is no longer in the hands of God, but in the hands of God’s enemy. (Oscar Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead)

Here Cullmann has eloquently expressed the New Testament view of death as the enemy of God. For another example we can turn to Paul, who calls death “the last enemy.” Because death in the New Testament is not merely the end of biological life, it is also a power that insinuates itself into our living of these days. I’ll say more about this now as we turn to the idea of eternal life.

4. Eternal Life.

The final concept I want to explore is eternal life. One of the problems we have as moderns in understanding the world of the New Testament is its conception of time. There is a persistent eschatology that sees events both in the present and the future. Theologians refer to this as “the already and the not yet.”

Advent is a good time to talk about this, for while we have too often boiled Advent down to merely preparing for celebrating the birth of Christ, it is also a season of anticipating Christ’s second coming.

We see this in the memorial acclamations of many Christian liturgies: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. ”

Eternal life is one of those concepts that sits in an eschatological frame, or to put it another way, has an “already but not yet” quality about it. In early Christian preaching Jesus is said to offer eternal life to his followers, not just post-mortem, but now before death. In John 5:24, for example, Jesus says. “The one who hears my word . . . has eternal life: he does not come unto judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

But this realized aspect of eternal life does not take away from the reality of death, and the promise is that eternal life in its fullness lies on the other side of the resurrection.

The words said at many graveside committal services speak of “the resurrection to eternal life.” For example, this one from the Book of Common Prayer:

“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty
God our brother or sister N.; and we commit his or her body to the ground;
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Notice the reality of death here expressed in the ashes and dust.

As I mentioned earlier, death in the New Testament is more than the final cessation of biological life, but also a power that can insinuate itself into our living. In some sense the realized eternal life in Christ is the opposite of the power of death, which Christ defeated by his cross and resurrection.

And eternal life is not an individualistic state. Eternal life is life with Christ and in Christ and by extension a life in community, in the church, which is his body. Many contemporary speculations about life after death are very individualistic, but the Christian hope is a corporate and communal hope, the hope to join the communion of saints.

There is a wonderful sermon by Jonathan Edwards, the second pastor of this church, on 1 Corinthians 13: 8-10, called Heaven is a World of Love in which Edwards explores the metaphor of the communion of saints as a heavenly choir.

How many of you know it? (No hands) I wish it were better known because it is a better example of the essential Edwards than the terrifying Enfield sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which everybody seems to know.

In Heaven is a World of Love Edwards begins by beautifully describing heaven and all its social arrangements, and in so doing puts forth a protest against the social arrangements that we know so well on earth; for in Edward’s heaven there is no pride or jealously, there is decency and wisdom, and an equal prosperity among all. He says, “Love (poured out from God) resides and reigns in every heart there.” And then he says: “Every saint there is as a note in a concert of music which sweetly harmonizes with every other note, and all together employed wholly in praising God.” So life after death is life in community.

5. What then can we say about life after death?

Having said all this, and leaving much more out in my brief time today, what can the Christian cling to in the theologies of life after death? I’ll sum up my main points:

  • Christians understand life after death through the lens of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  • For the Christian, death is not an illusion or an escape, but a reality. Death is God’s enemy, yet God has overcome it through the cross and the raising of Jesus from the dead.
  • Life after death is not intrinsic to the human person, but a gift of God in the raising of Jesus Christ.
  • Life after death is bodily life with continuity of personality and integrity of personhood. It is not a part of you that lives the new life, but you.
  • Life after death is relational and communal, where we join in the communion of saints across all times and places.
  • Life after death is relational and imagined  as spatial, nearer or farther to God.
  • The purpose of life after death is for the praise of God. In the words of the Shorter Catechism, “The chief end of men and women is to love God and enjoy him forever.”
  • Both the living and the dead live between the times, in “the already but not yet” between the first and second coming, as we wait with the church on earth and the church in heaven for the Day when Christ comes in glory at the consummation of all things.

The basis for all this is, of course, faith in the God we know here and now, the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  In Don Hammond’s (the outgoing interim pastor) graceful ministry among us he has said again and again in a variety of ways something like this, “Whoever you are, whatever you have done, know that you are truly and forever loved.”

The Christian hope for this life and the next is rooted in this Gospel truth about the love of God, that God’s grace is greater than our sin, that God’s love is stronger than anything else in the world, even death, the last enemy, which God defeated on the cross.

There are numerous eloquent witnesses to this love in the New Testament, but none is better than this by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8 and I will close with it:

If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen.

I delivered this paper at the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge, MA on December 9, 2012, the Second Sunday of Advent.

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